Kübler-Ross and Kore-eda: A Kontrast and Komparison

by Raymond H

The knature of grief is kwite kweer.
Today's song goes a little something like this.


In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published On Death and Dying, a book which outlines five stages that a person who has undergone or is undergoing loss goes through. These stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, are widely accepted by the general public and referenced in many fictional works about death and loss. However, there are two details of the Kübler-Ross model that many people do not know. The first is that there is almost no empirical evidence to support this model, and the second is that Kübler-Ross never actually intended for these stages to operate in a set order or timetable. Despite the fact that the model is labeled with numbered stages, the stages themselves do not have to appear in the order that they are numbered. To be more specific, although the stages are listed as 1-denial, 2-anger, 3-bargaining, 4-depression, and 5-acceptance, there is nothing that prevents a person from feeling anger before denial, or bargaining after depression. When many people learn of this detail, they sometimes go into their own stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. After all, the Kübler-Ross model is a tidy and orderly way of looking at a difficult subject. However, it is that exact orderliness that makes the Kübler-Ross model so flawed, because there is nothing in this universe more disorderly and unpredictable than human emotions. It is this unpredictability that is highlighted in the film Maborosi, a movie directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda that presents a compellingly contrarian image of grief, and whose differences with Kübler-Ross I hope to illustrate within the text of this article.

In Maborosi, a woman named Yumiko’s husband kills himself by walking in front of a train, and even after her remarriage to another man, Yumiko struggles with accepting her husband’s death. Indeed, this struggle is the sole focus of the entire movie, with any other stories and questions, such as how or why Yumiko chose to remarry, given only a passing mention or even no attention at all. With such an obvious story focus on loss and grief, and an impressive running time of 110 minutes, Maborosi would seem like an easy vehicle to display the Kübler-Ross model in action. However, no such display occurs. From the very moment that Yumiko is asked to accompany the police and identify the body they found, she remains in a numbed trance. The joy and energy she possessed in the early portions of the film have completely left her, to be replaced with a dull and morbid listlessness.

From this, it would appear that the film does in fact follow the Kübler-Ross model of grief, but that it simply chooses to focus on stage 4, depression, while leaving stages 1 through 3 to have occurred in the fade that marks the narrative gap between Yumiko first receiving the news of her old husband’s death and her setting off for her new life with her new husband. However, this fails to take into account two details. Firstly, the feelings Yumiko feels when she first receives news of her old husband’s death and when she spends her days with her new husband are the same. Whether you label her lethargy as denial or depression, the black moods that hang over her during the course of the movie are the same throughout. Secondly, Yumiko does not reach the acceptance of her husband’s death in a straight line. Throughout the film, we see her experience moments of genuine joy and satisfaction, such as when she rests in her new husband’s arms after having made love, or when she goes back to Amagasaki for her brother’s wedding. These moments of pleasure are real and tangible, and by Kübler-Ross’s account, they should mark the end of Yumiko’s journey to acceptance. However, the black moods continue to haunt Yumiko until the very end of the film, against all reason, like a will-o’-the-wisp in a moonlit marsh.

It should be noted, the English title Maborosi is misleading, as the Japanese word maboroshi means “illusion”, while the full Japanese title, Maboroshi no Hikari means “a trick of the light”, or “a phantom light”. However, while the Japanese word maboroshi may mean “illusion”, the English translation of the film’s script uses the English word Maborosi to convey the idea of the will-o’-the-wisp, a phenomenon more likely to be understood by English speakers. In English folklore, the ghost of a wicked smith is said to haunt marshes at night with a light that he uses to lure poor travelers to their deaths. The unearthly light that the smith supposedly gives off is called a will-o’-the-wisp, and you can find these wisps in a lot of art that discusses the topic of death, loneliness, or loss. The most important detail in all this though, is that according to the legends, will-o’-the-wisps are supposed to appear to those who are lost, whether literally or metaphorically. The wisps call out to lost souls, like l’appel du vide, fueling suicidal desires and making people give up on life.

Throughout Maborosi, the black moods that mark Yumiko’s grief come to her when she feels lost, and at the end, when her grief is at its strongest, she even sees a will-o’-the-wisp, beckoning her to follow. But each time they appear, we are pressed with the question of why her black moods come to her when they do, and why they are always the same. As mentioned previously, the stages of Kübler-Ross do not have to come in their assigned order. They can come in any order they choose. However, this fails to answer why Yumiko’s grief only comes in one form, in one stage. It is a mystery that continues to baffle both those watching Maborosi and Yumiko herself, for every time she has a moment of pleasure, she feels satisfied and content, but then something like a bicycle or a bell will remind her of her grief, and a black mood will follow her again, although she does not know why. The black moods simply come to her, beyond her control.

But why do these black moods come? The answer lies in another mystery, that of the death of Yumiko’s old husband. We are never given a reason for his suicide, or even any clues that might allow us to form theories. It is true that he was stuck in a dead-end job and had little money or future prospects. But even if he could not live a great life, he was still living a good one. He had friends, family, and a wife and child who loved him. Many people do not even get that. Many people can only dream of having that. Even without a sports car or mansion, Yumiko’s old husband had everything necessary to be satisfied in life. Then again, people can still not be satisfied with life even if they have all the tools necessary to achieve such satisfaction. Many people in Maborosi are satisfied or unsatisfied with life. However, if you were to ask why they are that way, finding an answer would prove to be more difficult than expected.

Yumiko’s old husband was unsatisfied with life, but even until the end of the film we do not know why. Meanwhile, Yumiko’s new husband is satisfied with life, as shown by the concern for those in his life and endeavors to help Yumiko with her grief. But he too has a dead-end job with little money in a dying town. His life’s position is the same as that of Yumiko’s old husband, so why is he satisfied when Yumiko’s old husband was not? We never find out. Similarly, Yumiko’s son and step-daughter are both satisfied, as shown by their days of fun and playfulness. But why do the deaths of their parents not haunt them the same way they do Yumiko? Yumiko’s son was too young to remember his father’s death, but even if he cannot remember, surely he can recognize his mother’s sadness, and surely he knows about there having been no discernable motive for his father’s suicide. Yumiko’s step-daughter, meanwhile, would have probably been old enough to remember her mother’s death when she was three, but throughout the film she shows no signs of her own black moods, in contrast with Yumiko, who is still deeply shaken by her own grandmother’s death from when she was a little girl. Somehow the children in Maborosi are satisfied, and we do not know why. Then there is Yumiko’s new father-in-law. He seems to be satisfied, reacting to everything with a gruff assurance that things will work out. However, as Yumiko’s new husband states at the end of the film, at one point in his life, the father-in-law felt the call of his own Maborosi, so at some time he himself must have felt lost or unsatisfied. But why? We are never told. All the characters in Maborosi have been touched by loss, whether it be a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, or a daughter-in-law. And yet some of them have moved on to acceptance while others remain in mourning. What is the key that distinguishes these differing emotions?

The fact is, we never find out. We do not know why these characters in Maborosi are satisfied or unsatisfied with their lives. They simply are, and are not given enough focus from the film for us to see the reasons behind their emotions. The only character given such focus and whose emotions we can find a reason for is Yumiko, and this reason is directly tied to the mystery of another person’s emotions. Yumiko is unsatisfied because she does not understand why her old husband was unsatisfied. Yumiko cannot understand, and this lack of understanding, this lack of any sort of explanation or conjectural clues, is what causes Yumiko’s black moods to reappear, because no matter how happy she becomes with her new life, she is still faced with that unanswerable mystery. Yumiko’s path in dealing with her grief defies our understanding and expectations, because the cause of her grief defies her own understanding and expectations. She does not know how to feel, because she does not understand, as she cries out during the film’s climax. “I just don’t understand!”. Sometimes she can forget, when she shares a happy moment with her new family or her new home, and we see her smiling and enjoying herself. But when the unanswered question of why comes back to her, Yumiko will feel like she does not deserve to feel happy with the mystery left unsolved, and we see her wandering forlornly in contemplation, dressed in her distinctive black overcoat of mourning.

Perhaps the key to the mystery lies in the idea of company, or to be more specific, connection. Those in the film who are unsatisfied are usually seen alone, while those who are satisfied are usually seen with other people. And although they are married, when Yumiko and her old husband are together, she is obviously the more social and affectionate of the two. Throughout all the scenes they share together, even though Yumiko often looks at her husband lovingly, there is only one moment in the entire film when he matches her gaze, when she goes to see him at his job at the steel factory. Every other time, Yumiko’s husband never looks back at her. Even when they are together, he is by himself. He fails to connect to those around him. In contrast, the son and step-daughter are not simply satisfied, but are satisfied together, and their moments of playfulness and fun are shared with each other. And the moments of pleasure that Yumiko experiences are in the company of her new husband or other people, while her black moods come to her when she is in solitude.

A common story is that of a city dweller settling down in a rural area and experiencing a more satisfying and fulfilling life as a result. This idea of going back to one’s roots (even if one has lived their whole life in a city, and thus has no rural roots to return to), could be said to be present in Maborosi. After all, at the beginning of the film, Yumiko’s grandmother is so driven by the desire to return to her rural hometown of Sukumo before her death that she disappears and is never seen again. And to escape the shadow of her old husband’s death, Yumiko escapes her old urban environment of Amagasaki and settles with her new husband in the rural town of Sosogi. However, I argue that the difference between Amagasaki and Sosogi which allows Yumiko to move on is not one of urban vs rural, but rather one of isolation vs connection.

Yumiko’s grandmother longs to return to her old, rural hometown, to go back to her roots. But I contend that this is not the result of wanting clean air and quiet nights, but rather of wanting a sense of connection. It is true, in Amagasaki, Yumiko’s grandmother has her son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, and grandson. But she also has Alzheimer’s. When one has Alzheimer’s, one begins to forget things, starting with small details like the location of car keys and glasses, then culminating in crucial things, such as how to feed oneself or who one’s loved ones even are. If the grandmother’s Alzheimer’s was severe enough to warrant an impossible journey back to Sukumo, her reasons for wanting to go back would not have been over something so trivial as a lack of living space. Her reasons for wanting to go back would have been that she could not recognize the people or place that she was currently living in. She would not have seen her adult son as her son. Her real son would still be a child waiting for her in Sukumo. She would not have seen Amagasaki as the place where her family lived. Her real family would still be waiting for her in Sukumo. And she would not have been able to connect with anyone or anything in her current environment. The only things she could have still connected to would have been the memories she was still able to hold onto. And that desire to preserve connection, to preserve the sense of belonging somewhere, is what drove her to leave.

The loss of memories is a loss that brings about grief just as readily as the loss of a loved one, and the key to overcoming loss, as postulated by Kübler-Ross, is communication; or, to find a term more in line with Kore-eda’s film, connection. It is through a connection with people in Sosogi that Yumiko is able to overcome her grief. The streets of Amagasaki are often empty, in contrast with the bustling residents of Sosogi. The news of Yumiko’s husband’s fate is a cold, impersonal matter that only concerns Yumiko herself, as opposed to the news of the old fisherwoman’s fate, which garners the attention and concern of the entire town. And while in Amagasaki, where the most Yumiko received in terms of possible motive for her husband’s suicide was an “It’s a mystery” from her mother, in Sosogi, Yumiko’s new husband at least tries to theorize a reason behind it all. In Sosogi, someone else helps Yumiko confront the question of why, even if they cannot answer it fully for her. Someone else reaches out and tries to connect with her. Perhaps, Yumiko’s new husband says, her old husband simply saw a Maborosi, which drew him away from life.

Or perhaps Yumiko’s husband killed himself because he never found anyone with whom he could connect. But that is just a theory, like what Yumiko’s new husband tells her at the end of the film, when her grief is at its strongest. And the theory Yumiko’s new husband posits is to her old husband’s death what the Kübler-Ross model is to grief. It is a will-o’-the-wisp, a Maborosi, a convenient way for explaining something we cannot fully comprehend. But whether we accept it as gospel, or recognize its fallibility and accept our own inability to understand, its existence gives us comfort, and perhaps the strength to carry on. We never find out which of those two options Yumiko ends up taking. Her reaction to her new husband’s theory is one of silence, and for once in the film, we cannot see what is going on in her mind when she hears it. However, in the next scene, we see her walk out of the darkened house she lives in, and step into the light. Yumiko remarks to her father-in-law that it is getting warmer, and we see at last her acceptance. Maybe the black moods will still come to her, but for now, we know that when they do, they will never be as strong as they were when Yumiko first saw that Maborosi. Now she can live her life again.

Which of the two models, Kübler-Ross’s stages or Kore-eda’s film, is a more accurate illustration of human grief? The answer is both, or perhaps neither, because human grief cannot be categorized or contained in either model. The science of the human mind is like every other science. It is limited by what we can observe, and is subject to change with the arrival of new evidence. However, there is one difference between questions of grief and questions of science. While we can never truly understand everything that exists in this world, our constant asking of unanswerable questions about the world gives us meaning and purpose. When it comes to the matter of grief though, unanswerable questions, such as Yumiko’s final cry, are perhaps better left unanswered. Yumiko never does learn why her husband killed himself. But she does learn that if she allows this question to consume her, she will never be able to move on and live again. And so, even if Kübler-Ross and Kore-eda’s images of grief are different in many ways, they both end with acceptance.
Themes: TV & Movies

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